Since the arrival of missionaries in Tonga, the Christian Church has been central to the identity and culture of Tongans. When they first came to New Zealand they held Tongan-language church gatherings in inner-city private homes. As increasing numbers arrived in the 1970s the Free Wesleyan Church in Tonga sent some ministers to lead these get-togethers. It was agreed that Tongans could conduct services in Methodist Church buildings, and observe the regulations and rules of the Methodist Church of New Zealand.
As the community grew in the 1980s and 1990s, Tongans built churches themselves, and some left the Methodist Church of New Zealand to run them. The major group was the Free Wesleyan Church, with a big building in Māngere.
In the 2000s, the acceptance by the Methodist Church of gay ministers caused hundreds of Tongans to break away and either start their own denomination or join an existing one, such as the Free Wesleyan.
Matters of gender
Tongan culture recognises only very strict gender roles. Girls are brought up to be submissive and to stay at home, whereas boys are reared to be independent and mobile. As adults, men have more political power, but women are ranked higher in the community. The terms fakaleitī (like a lady) and fakatangata (like a man) are the Tongan words for gay people. When they are not in sexual relationships, these people are usually ignored, but as sexual beings they can face discrimination within the community.
The young age of the Tongan population (the median in 2013 was 19.4 years, compared to 38 years for all New Zealanders) makes it vulnerable to the loss of language and culture. As the number of Tongans born in New Zealand increases, the number who still speak Tongan is slowly declining – from 63% in 1996 to 53% in 2013.
Many Tongans believe that without their language, people lose their identity; and that to develop anga faka-Tonga (the Tongan way) it is important that the language be a feature of children’s upbringing and socialisation. Such views explain why, since the 1980s, the community has set up preschools based on the Māori kōhanga reo (language nest) principle, to enable young Tongan children to use the language.
In 2004 a draft curriculum for Tongan language was produced for preschools and primary and secondary schools. Tongan language courses are taught at the University of Auckland.